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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Assault of History; or, more questions about Faulkner

Posted by Sean McCann on 03/15/07 at 11:53 AM

Did I ever say I understood Light in August?  I must have been drinking.  On a latest read the novel seems to me more extraordinary, profound, and deeply confusing than ever. 

Partly this has to do with the maddening and enticing syntax and narrative style.  In my experience, the book repeatedly confronts you with characters whose long streams of free indirect discourse appear to be leading you toward some key revelation; the anticipation builds and you think: ok, now I think I see where things are going; and then a sentence just breaks off and leaves you hanging in mid air.  The experience—I suspect, intentionally—seems comparable to the minor climax toward the end of the novel when Hightower engages in a moment of introspection, finds his thinking grinding slow (like a wheel gripped by sand) and, then, just at the point of most painful self-examination, feels it suddenly spin free.  He’s back in the world of gratifying romance.  The epiphany never comes. 

That happens a lot, which makes for a frustrating read and maybe a convincing portrait of human psychology and communication.  (Yesterday, my six-year-old was very urgently telling me of some event that happened when he was playing with friends.  A toddler may or may not have wandered into a street.  I’m still not clear on the details.  What I do know is that Jason wouldn’t open the gate.  Why?  Because every time I asked my son to explain more clearly what happened, he came back to what mattered to him and said, “And Jason wouldn’t open the gate!” I must have heard that a dozen times, without finding out much of anything else.  I thought, my god, he’s just like a Faulkner narrator.)

But, relatedly, the experience of confusion results from the deep and apparently intentional obscurity at the center of Faulkner’s narrative.  This is a book, after all, that, like its successor Absalom, Absalom!, began life with the title “Dark House.” Yes, gothic.  There’s a mystery; it’s going to haunt; and it’s not going to be subject to clear explanation or pat narrative resolution. 

So, why is that?  I’m not sure I’ve yet read an account of the novel that seemed to me to offer a truly convincing and thorough explanation.  (Yes, I see the paradox in wanting a clear account of what seems intended to resist clarification.) And I’m thinking of trying to work up my own unsatisfactory and still underdeveloped view of the novel.  What I do feel confident of, though, is that the predominant understanding—that the novel is concerned in someway to reveal the arbitrariness, irrationality, and cruelty of racial classification--is highly questionable. 

Just to point briefly to some of the reasons for that suspicion, I’ll take Richard Gray to offer a strong version of the standard view.  Gray’s critical biography seems to me on the whole a model of careful and informed literary attention.  A very fine piece of work and an invaluable resource.  On LIA, however, I think he’s talking out of his hat.  “Faulkner’s concern,” he writes, “is to show how language—and with it, social relationships and systems of belief—can begin to change when faced with the assault of history” (181).* More specifically, once Joe Christmas is killed—to “rise soaring,” Faulkner says, into the eternal memories of the townspeople of Jefferson—then the political and cultural system of Jim Crow will begin to change: 

As the image of Joe Christmas solidifies in memory, the suggestion is, then, perhaps the verbal and moral apartheid practiced in the use of the word “nigger” will begin to be dismantled: the linguistic and ideological divisions between black and white will be called into question and subverted (188).

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.  It looks to me, though, like the evidence points pretty clearly in the opposite direction.  If anything, the novel depicts, in several ways, the replacement of confusing interracial society by a clearly segregated one: the death not just of Joe, but of Joanna; the destruction of her former plantation house; Hightower’s second, now successful efforts as a midwife--this time for the birth of a white, rather than black child.  The fact that Joe (problematic in life, memorialized in death) will occupy a permanent place in the minds of the townspeople is less challenge to, than evidence toward this implication.

More basically, Gray’s whole view of the novel depends on a set of assumptions that seem to me almost self-evidently dubious.  I suspect that if they didn’t suggest a more palatable Faulkner, they wouldn’t pass first muster.  Gray’s summary:

[The] dilemma [of Joe Christmas] stems not from the fact but from the idea of mixed blood.  Neither Joe nor the reader ever knows whether he is white or part-black; Joe, however, has been convinced by his culture that he needs to know this in order to know who he is.  Unable to see the issue of race as one that is incidental to the definition of self, and unable to accept wholeheartedly the role of black or that of white, he seems to be at once imprisoned and empty: imprisoned by false notions of identity that constitute the only ones he has ever been taught, and empty because, lacking the tools to create his own vocabulary of selfhood, he really ceases to exist as anything more than a cipher.  It seems appropriate that his name should be no more than an arbitrary label attached to him by people who neither know who he is nor care; since . . . his problem is one of names rather than things.  “Joe Christmas” is little more than a linguistic convention, a shape to fill a lack.  It is not an authentic name because Joe’s is not an authentic language—which is to say, a language that relates directly to his own experience and expresses his immediate needs; and without an authentic name or language.  Joe is without the agencies necessary for any understanding of himself. . . .  [H]e is, for Faulkner, a representative instance of the tragic consequences of social positioning: an example perhaps of what Althusser was thinking of when he said “a subjected being . . . is stripped of all freedom except that of feely accepting his submission” (42-43)

From this vantage, I suppose, Joe Christmas looks a little like an inverse Kwame Anthony Appiah —exploring the allure and perhaps the incoherence of “existential” and “romantic” approaches to identity—but raging at, rather than accepting of their respective inadequacy.  The problem, however, is that Gray’s account isn’t really consistent with what the novel tells us.

I won’t even take up the arguably hard question of whether we ever know Joe’s race as Faulkner understands it.  (I think the consensus on this question is itself too pat and that the assumptions about the reasons for Faulkner’s vagueness on the question are not necessarily convincing.  In the climactic moment, after all, the narrator tells us quite directly of “the pent black blood [that] seemed to rush like a released breath” from Joe’s castrated body [Vintage, 465].) Let me focus instead on two, less widely addressed, but perhaps easier and maybe revealing questions. 

First, is Joe’s name authentic?  Leave aside the fact that what might be called a “theoretically sophisticated” critical approach seems to be quite comfortable with an apparently naïve understanding of language (“relates directly to his own experience and expresses his immediate needs”?).  Let’s just note that the narrative makes it clear that, as far as Joe is concerned, his name is perfectly authentic.  When McEachern comes to adopt the five-year-old child, Joe “didn’t even bother to say to himself My name ain’t McEachern.  My name is Christmas” (145).  Thirteen years later, he restates the point to the prostitute Bobbie. (It’s not McEachern.  It’s Christmas” [184].) If you assert a name, after 13 years of going by another one, you pretty clearly think there’s something necessary about the first one. 

So, if the idea is that Faulkner means to highlight the arbitrariness of social classification—and the cruelty and psychic impoverishment it produces—well, Joe’s name isn’t, as Gray suggests, going to provide much help.  The same is true, I think, of the thought that “Joe . . . has been convinced by his culture that he needs to know” his race and that this is the only model of identity “he has ever been taught.” Those are probably the most widely shared assumptions about LIA.  But what are the grounds for believing they’re true?  The evidence for the idea that Joe has been imprinted with an obsession with race is the fact that, when he was five years old, he was called “Nigger”--first by other children at the orphanage, then by the dietician who arranges to get rid of him.  Here’s the thing, though.  Joe leaves the orphanage at the age of five.  For the next 13 years, he’s raised by the Calvinist zealot McEachern who remarks on the unimportance of the mystery of Joe’s parentage and who appears to oppose to it a concern with spiritual orthodoxy.  (“He will grow up to fear God and abhor idleness and vanity despite his origin” [143].) In fact, might not the whole episode at the McEachern farm be there to show us precisely that Joe has been taught a way to think of himself that doesn’t emphasize parentage or race?  McEachern expects Joe to take his name, do his work, and worship his god.  He’ll beat Joe in pursuit of that mission.  But he never mentions genealogy again.  It’s Joe, in fact, who will resurrect the issue of name and race—and notably, only once he’s away from McEachern’s farm. 

In short, several of the props for the predominant view of the novel look, on closer inspection, pretty shaky.  So, where does that point us?  Well, among other things toward the possibility that the issues of race and miscegenation, while tragic for Faulkner, are in no way arbitrary or even merely sociological for him.  They are, rather, matters of profound significance and (spiritual, rather than epistemological) mystery.  When I get around to fleshing out my view of the book, I’ll emphasize that point and will contend as well that the novel’s many references to Calvinist theories of sin and atonement—skipped over by most readers--are likewise crucially significant.  (In other words, you can’t really understand the novel, I think, without absorbing some of the lessons of Orlando Patterson.) More to come on this, though, in a future post.

* * *

For Faulkneraholics only:

While I’m maundering on about this, let me just raise two related, but minor questions.  One is about Hightower.  Talking with Byron Bunch about the distance from town center to the former slave cabin behind Joana Burden’s house, Hightower says, “I used to walk it myself now and then” (317).  What, if anything, are we supposed to understand from this throwaway remark?  Certainly, Hightower and Joanna show some symbolic parallels, but are we meant to believe there might have been more substantial contact between them, or between Hightower and her neighbors.  After all, Hightower is a pretty sedentary dude.  And Burden’s neighborhood, we’re told, is now “a region of Negro cabins and gutted and outworn fields” (287).  So what was Hightower doing in those parts?  A tiny issue, but I’m curious whether this line has some significance or if it’s just there for Barthesian reality effect.

A more substantial question concerns Percy Grimm.  I haven’t come across this point that I can remember, but I think it’s worth noting that when Faulkner refers to “the new civilian-military act which saved him” (450), he’s probably referring to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1920.  The act—apparently a very important bit of legislation in American military history—was new in the sense that it updated and revised the similarly titled act of 1916.  Its importance lay in the fact that, at a moment (in the wake of WWI) when career officers were pressing for the expansion of a professional military, the Act reaffirmed and institutionalized a commitment to a civilian Army.  (It did so by bringing the National Guard and the Reserves under the administrative agency of the Army, by creating ROTC, and by developing programs for training civilians for military service.) Interestingly, the legislation seems to have been motivated both by the desire to avoid the creation of a standing army, and by a desire to expand the interrelations between civilian and military life that had begun during wartime mobilization. 

Grimm clearly registers Faulkner’s dislike of that kind of expansion in state power--as does, say, the comparable history of Lee Goodwin in Sanctuary.  (Goodwin is sent to the Philippines, Mexico, the trench warfare of WWI, and Leavenworth; i.e., he’s an imperial centurion damaged and abused by the state).  Grimm’s zealous commitment to “the nation”--as opposed to the region, or the state of Mississippi, or the town—clearly renders him a distasteful character.  (Interestingly, it makes him resemble no one so much as Joe Brown—who is both “a stranger anywhere” and “a American citizen” [426].) But precisely how does that quality relate to his ultimate killing of Joe Christmas?  Does he kill because he’s been indoctrinated into a revolting racial nationalism, as many readers emphasize and as Faulkner himself later hinted?  Or does he kill when he abandons the rationalization of national service?  My suspicion is that both these possibilities are true in a way and that neither really gets at the core issue.

* I think it’s worth noting, btw, that Gray’s basic premise here is a version of what Ian Hunter calls the “hermeneutic” understanding of history common to Theory: confining structures versus eruptive events.  In Gray’s case, that understanding might be partly the consequence of his indebtedness to Althusser and Machery.


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